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The Healthy Communities Bill
An Interview with Sofia Martinez

New Mexico Healthy Communities Act

The purposes of the New Mexico Healthy Communities Act are to:

  1. require that the energy, minerals and natural resources department, the department of environment and local governments, when using their zoning authority, consider the impacts of their decisions on communities affected by those decisions;
  2. prevent decisions of the energy, minerals and natural resources department and the department of environment and zoning decisions of local governments from having disproportionate public health, environmental and cultural impacts on members of ethnic, income-level and racial populations;
  3. prevent the concentration in communities of regulated facilities that impact the public health, environment and culture of residents of those communities;
  4. provide for enhanced public participation in the decision-making processes of the energy, minerals and natural resources department, the department of environment and local government zoning authorities that affect the public health, environment and culture of communities; and
  5. provide affected individuals and communities with a means to address decisions of the energy, minerals and natural resources department and the department of environment and zoning decisions of local governments that violate the terms of the New Mexico Healthy Communities Act.

Senate Bill 710 and House Bill 722, 2005 New Mexico State Legislature

Frances Ortega (FO): How did the Healthy Communities Bill come about?

Sofia Martinez (SM): The New Mexico affiliate organizations of the Southwest Network for Environmental and Economic Justice (SNEEJ) and their allies came together more than a year ago to discuss environmental justice (EJ) issues. Our perspective was that of communities who had been dealing with EJ issues for the past fifteen to twenty years. The focus was on EJ in New Mexico, and this group became the New Mexico Environmental Justice Working Group (NMEJWG). Prior to the New Mexico state legislature, we also worked on a state-wide initiative with the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED): Environmental Justice Listening Sessions. The NMEJWG has been raising top EJ issues in the state of New Mexico for the last two years.

FO: Since this was a first time you worked officially a “lobbyist,” what was your experience with regard to this environmental bill and how was it received at the New Mexico legislature 2005?

SM: It was interesting because I think anybody who is interested in health and communities supported it. And those making decisions about development, whatever that may mean, were wary about it. Obviously, development means something different to ordinary people versus industry, business, and governments. Despite this, the bill was well received. People liked the title and gravitated toward it. After the bill was read, there were folks who supported it.

The best analysis of our bill came from the Department of Health (DOH). The Department’s comments were positive and stated well-known data on the disproportionate impact on poor and communities of color as a result of environmental degradation. Their comments stated: “Communities with the greatest number of commercial hazardous waste facilities have some of the highest proportions of minority residents.”

For people who come from a health perspective, the bill was well received. For those who don’t work in those capacities of serving or helping to empower communities, it wasn’t too well received. Industry and business have historically had access to regulating governments and agencies as opposed to everyday folks who don’t. What about teachers, secretaries, or construction workers? These working individuals can’t attend meetings. Everyday people are not well represented at the state legislature, and I don’t think the public really understands this. To give an example, some people say that, in terms of schooling, some parents are apathetic. It isn’t apathy. I think working-class people are overwhelmed with the scale of issues in their lives and the time involved just in surviving.

Some believe that politicians or legislators, like teachers, have the expertise and should take care of what happens at the legislature/school. Unfortunately, some do not have all the information or skills to make good decisions. Therefore what happens at the legislature at times can be good, to bad, to ugly. They (legislators) are automatically assumed to have certain abilities.

Business and industry lobbyists had a hard time with the bill and lobbied hard against it. There is a big difference between lobbyists for industry business and government, and lobbyists working in behalf of community organizations.

The financial and cultural capital disparities in trying to influence legislation can be tricky.

I would like to give you an example of something that happened at the legislature, that while it is not unique, kind of shows imbalances in power and decision making. A municipal council member attended the legislature on the day identified for other state officials. Although we had spoken to their town council and they supported the Healthy Communities Bill, at a presentation on that day by the Municipal League they were told not to support it and given little reason other than that it would be burdensome to municipalities.

FO: It's interesting, the folks who have knowledge about health, like the Department of Health, were for it, but agencies and industry who don't work in the health field were against it. So a councilor was making decisions on behalf of its residents and was given advice by an association of municipalities on what to support?

SM: Yes. She had been supportive of the Healthy Communities Bill, but after the meeting with the Municipal League she seemed unclear. So that's problematic.

I guess the issues here are that industry and business are historically at the table, including their lobbyists. Whether it be at interim committees throughout the year, but at policy and other governmental and institutional meetings where relationships and rapport are developed. Community people and community or 501(c)(3) organizations do not have the capacity to compete at the level of say, PNM, who has maybe nine lobbyists and a big expense account for the whole year, not just the legislative session. If community-based people are not around to explain their perspective, then decision-making bodies make decisions without their input.

FO: So this may be a good example of how municipalities exercise their power, particularly in rural areas. These are the entities that make decisions regarding development proposals and must determine possible impacts as a result of such development.

SM: Exactly. For instance, in a rural area, a judge does not have to be a lawyer. You can have people like village counselors making decisions about landfills and other regulated industry who know nothing about these facilities and their processes. There are no experts, nor money to pay for research and analysis. Therefore, the training offered by the state or entities like the Municipal League is important. However, if they do nothing more that promote urban and development interests, then there can be a problem. Their decisions require some knowledge on determining locations, geology, classifying acceptable contents, provisions for air or ground-water monitoring, etc.

FO: What were challenges for you as a lobbyist?

SM: Well, there is definitely much to learn and juggle in lobbying. A big challenge for community interests is that many lobbyists have huge budgets for entertaining. This is an important part of the climate. There are a lot of parties thrown on behalf of legislators – even birthday parties. Entities with large budgets are able to deliver breakfast, lunch, dinner, flowers, chocolates, etc., for a late night or early morning committee meeting, an office, Valentines Day, or maybe buy dinner for legislators. This all helps in establishing a rapport with senators and representatives and helps communicate organizational goals and intentions. Also, secretaries, pages, and all manner of legislative staff play critical roles and can act as a gatekeeper or facilitator on any piece of legislation.

FO: This brings to mind something that probably isn’t so unique in New Mexico and other states and that is conflicts of interest. Legislators are on the payrolls of various companies that may be in direct conflict of a specific bill, like the Healthy Communities Act. Some Senators are on the payroll of polluting industries. Can they truly represent the people on these issues?

SM: Well, what we see is that if a constituency is active they can apply pressure. Again, unfortunately lobbyists working in behalf of communities and grassroots folks are few. Things happen quickly or drag on at the legislature. When these relationships work or campaign support issues come to bear many times it is the political career not the health of the community that takes precedence. Our bill was considered “controversial” and was stalled in the Senate Conservation Committee. This is not only in this state, but nationally as well. Go to Washington, D.C. and you will find that this happens there too.

FO: So who were other supporters of the bill?

SM: The media in general was friendly to the bill, as were other health alliances and networks, and community and environmental groups. I think the title of the bill helped.

There is virtually nothing negative about wanting cleaner neighborhoods and healthier environments. The only negative is the cost. But there will always be costs. What it comes down to is how do we want to spend our buck? Do we want to spend our buck in attracting industry that is sustainable to New Mexico and that will support the environment, health and workers? Or, do we want to continue to be the national sacrifice state? We are the leading state in the nation in giving IRBs (Industrial Revenue Bonds). How much do we want to sell ourselves for? New Mexico has many health issues. These issues reflect major health costs.

FO: Tell me about the title of the bill, since you mentioned how it was instrumental in your efforts?

SM: Well, at one time it was called the Community Impact bill, and after some dialogue it became the Healthy Communities Act. We talked as a group about how important messaging was, and so that is how we named it. With a title like Healthy Communities, people understand this. Health is a major issue in this state and in the country. The Healthy Communities Bill was and is a solution to the growing concern about health and health care costs. The protection of our environment will help insure our good health.

Sofia Martinez is along-time organizer, teacher and journalist. An early leader of SouthWest Organizing Project, she is a co-founder of Cambio, a community organization working with women and youth on issues of education, environmental justice and the arts. She is President of Concerned Citizens of Wagon Mound and Mora County, which formed to address waste and land use issues countywide.

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